By Dr. Sarah Stephenson, OB-GYN
Breast cancer activists have done a great job of keeping breast cancer front and center as a public health concern. During the month of October, Breast Cancer Awareness pink ribbons are practically everywhere, causing women to take screening more seriously. This boost for early detection should be a reminder to take preventive measures for your health as a whole. At every age and stage of a woman’s life, there are realistic ideas for managing all aspects of her health.
Get regular checkups and screenings
Starting in their 20s, women should begin general health screenings, even if they experience no symptoms. This includes:
• Monthly self-breast exams
• An annual pelvic exam
• A Pap test at least every three years up to age 29
• A Pap test and HPV test every five years from age 30 to 65
• A clinical breast exam every three years up to the age of 39
• A clinical breast exam and mammogram every year starting at age 40
• A bone density test at least once at menopause
Regular checkups are especially important throughout preconception, pregnancy and menopause.
• Preconception: If pregnancy is in the forecast, women should start talking with their physicians about nutritional habits and discuss any current health conditions or risks before conception.
• Pregnancy: A prenatal care provider typically schedules regular visits and discusses nutritional needs during pregnancy. At visits, the healthcare provider will administer prenatal exams, perform routine ultrasounds to observe the baby’s development and explain any recommendations and restrictions during the pregnancy and postpartum periods.
• Menopause: Women typically reach menopause, the cessation of menstrual periods, between ages 40 and 58, but perimenopause can begin much earlier. These hormonal changes sometimes give women a range of side effects and symptoms including:
• Difficulty sleeping
• Hot flashes
• Missed periods
• Night sweats
• Low estrogen levels that weaken bones and increase the likelihood of osteoporosis
• Weight gain
Physical activity has a multitude of benefits for menopausal women. Exercise can strengthen your bones, keep diseases like diabetes and heart disease at bay, slim your waistline and improve your sleep, not to mention your sense of well-being.
Be aware of the risks to women
Another way to be proactive with your health is to be aware of the top diseases that affect women and what you can do to lower your risk.
Recent figures from the National Center for Health Statistics show that heart disease is the leading cause of death in women. The risk increases with age, but heart disease can strike during youth too. The good news: you can prevent heart disease by checking your blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels and keeping them within a normal range. Regular cardiovascular exercise combined with a diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables can help you maintain an ideal weight and keep your heart strong.
Surprisingly, lung cancer causes more deaths in women than breast cancer and leads cancer deaths among the population as a whole. Although it can be caused by exposure to radon, 80 percent of lung cancer deaths are related to smoking. Recent data on secondhand smoke suggests women should also be wary of environments where they are exposed to smoking. If you haven’t already given it up, quit smoking today.
Breast cancer falls behind lung cancer in cause of death, but one out of eight women will be diagnosed with it. A big part of prevention includes regular screenings as prescribed by age, knowing your risk factors and making lifestyle changes for risks within your influence.
Among the factors that can predispose you:
• Age: Your risk goes up starting at age 40
• Alcohol use: Drinking more than two glasses of alcohol a day
• Dense breast tissue
• Gender: It’s more common in women, but men aren’t immune
• Family history of breast cancer
• Hormone replacement therapy with estrogen over the course of several years
• Menstrual cycle history: It’s higher for women who got their periods before age 12 or who began menopause after age 55
• Obesity or being overweight
• Women who have never given birth or who gave birth after age 30
A low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables may decrease your risk of colorectal cancer which has been growing, especially in people age 50 and older. High-risk populations include anyone with:
• A personal or family history of colorectal cancer
• Polyps in the colon or rectum
• Inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
Early detection is the key to treating this disease. The American Cancer Society advocates screenings at age 50. Tests include:
• Flexible sigmoidoscopy
• Double-contrast barium enema
• CT colonography
More than 12,000 women in the US are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. When it’s detected in its precancerous condition, it’s usually treatable. Most cases are associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV) which is spread through sexual intercourse. If you’re sexually active, make sure your partner uses condoms. Girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26 may also consider getting a cervical cancer vaccine. The vaccine is most effective before exposure to HPV, so 11 or 12 is a good age to be vaccinated.
Nearly 11 percent of all women over the age of 20 have diabetes. Some women may develop diabetes during pregnancy that disappears after their child is born, but they are at an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes later in life. Risk factors include:
• A pre-diabetes glucose reading
• Being over the age of 45
• Family history
• Being overweight
• Not getting regular exercise
• Having high blood pressure
• Racial background (higher prevalence in African American, Hispanic/Latino, American Indian and Asian/Pacific Islander women)
You can often prevent or delay diabetes through a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise and a balanced diet.
Let Witham Health Services take care of you during all your life stages. Visit www.witham.org to find an OB/GYN.
Breast Cancer: Early Detection May Save Your Life
Why is early detection so important for breast cancer survival? When breast cancers are found before they cause symptoms, they tend to be smaller and more confined to the breast. That makes it more treatable and increases the survival rate for women who are diagnosed.
All women should be familiar with the look and feel of their breasts, so they can easily notice any differences. Changes don’t necessarily mean you have cancer, but you should seek a doctor’s evaluation if you notice a change. For women who monitor regularly or even occasionally, the best time is when the breasts are not tender or swollen.
Here are guidelines for conducting a breast self-exam:
• Lie down and place your right arm behind your head.
• Use the finger pads of the three middle fingers on your left hand to feel for lumps in the right breast. Use circular motions of the finger pads to feel the breast tissue.
• Use three levels of pressure to feel all the breast tissue:
o Light pressure: Feel the tissue closest to the skin
o Medium pressure: Feel a little deeper
o Firm pressure: Feel the tissue closest to the chest and ribs
• Move around the breast in an up and down pattern, starting from the underarm and moving across the breast to the middle of the chest bone.
• Repeat this process for the other breast.
Dr. Sarah Stephenson, OB-GYN
Witham Health Services at Anson
6085 Heartland Drive
Zionsville, IN 46077